Health

The Coronavirus Truthers Don't Believe in Public Health

Social-distancing protesters, “medical freedom” advocates, and anti-vaccine activists all rely on deeply flawed ideas about how public health measures work—and how safe they are themselves.

by Anna Merlan
Apr 22 2020, 6:08pm

Protesters waves to TV cameras at the Texas State Capital building on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas. The protest was organized by Infowars host Owen Shroyer who is joining other protesters across the country in taking to the streets to call for the country to be opened up despite the risk of the COVID-19. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai puts a lot of stock in his immune system, and in yours. The highly litigious self-proclaimed “inventor of email” has been campaigning zealously for the Republican nomination in Massachusetts' Senate race under the slogans “Be the Light” and “Truth. Freedom. Health.” Recently, as the coronavirus pandemic has continued to ravage the world, he’s boiled his message down to an even simpler talking point: Boosting your immune system will save your life. Social distancing and other public health measures advocated by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., are, he claims, “fearmongering"—or worse. In a recent Facebook live video, Ayyadurai said isolation “affects immune properties on the cellular level. You actually hurt your immune system.”

“If you want to give Fauci the benefit of the doubt, his training is horrible,” Ayyadurai added.

This is, of course, why Ayyadurai and his fans have been lobbying recently for Donald Trump to fire Fauci and replace him with Ayyadurai. He recently sent a letter to the president promising “immune and economic health” for the country, which he proposes to deliver by organizing Americans into four groups: Those who are COVID-19 positive; the hospitalized and in critical condition; those who are not hospitalized but are immuno-compromised; and, finally, those who are healthy and COVID-negative. That latter group, he proposes, should “get back to work immediately,” while taking high doses of Vitamin A, D, C and iodine. “Third-world countries” like Chad and Djibouti, he wrote, have had “ZERO deaths” from COVID-19, because they “get food right out of the ground” and are “out in the sun all day,” giving them high doses of vitamins that Americans are being deprived of in social isolation. (Chad and Djibouti, in fact, both have confirmed COVID-19 cases, and Djibouti recently had its first fatality. Numbers are expected to rise there, as they have everywhere else on the planet.)

Ayyadurai’s ideas about how presumably healthy people should behave aren’t in keeping with what we now know about the novel coronavirus, particularly given that asymptomatic carriers might be far more prevalent than initially believed. But he has nonetheless become one of the more visible faces of a peculiar coalition of people downplaying the deadly realities of the pandemic, calling for the country to “reopen,” and claiming that measures like quarantine and self-isolation are unnecessary, if not actively harmful. He’s also part of a more specific group of coronavirus truthers who claim that broad public health measures aren’t needed if personal health provisions—high doses of vitamins, “boosting” the immune system, or more exotic measures like an infrared sauna or nebulizing hydrogen peroxide, as infamous alternative health booster Joseph Mercola’s website recently recommended—are followed.

These highly specific ideas about the ease of vanquishing coronavirus through personal action are showing up, explicitly, at the anti-lockdown protests that have happened, so far, in 22 states and counting. There, anti-vax and medical freedom campaigners holding signs saying things like "VACCINE MANDATES VIOLATE BODILY AUTONOMY" are being joined by a mixed-nuts assortment of right-wing groups—militias, Proud Boys, Alex Jones and his InfoWars crew, slightly more mainstream pro-gun activists. All of them share a belief, as Slate's Tom Scocca recently put it, “that thinking about other people's needs or interests in any way is tyranny by definition,” and that calls for collective action by entities like the CDC have a sinister ulterior motive. The nominal point of those protests is calling for the states to allow local businesses to reopen. But not that far under the surface was a strong dose of disease denialism, and an intensely, literally self-centered worldview.

"I eat the right food," one demonstrator told Global News. "I take vitamins, I drink the right water, vitamin D, vitamin C, it's been proven already. So we have everything that we need—we don't need a vaccine."

The president has been vocally encouraging of these protests, and of unproven cures like hydroxychloroquine, and it's not hard to understand why. Part of it is doubtless ideological: Dating back to the 1960s, the right has simply not believed in the value of public or collective action. More of it, though, is a political sleight of hand, meant to turn the total failure of the Trump administration to meaningfully address a public health emergency killing thousands of people every day into a solvable problem. The work of manufacturing and distributing masks and tests and setting up a regime of contact tracing is difficult and risks failure. Denying that doing so is even necessary, and that the crisis can be easily solved by Vitamin C and individual initiative, though, makes government action unnecessary. That we can go back to work as soon as we decide we want to without any meaningful consequence is a grotesque lie—but it’s a lie Trump and his hopes for a second term will benefit from.

The belief that it’s in everyone’s best interest to stay home for now relies on a fundamental acceptance of the concept of public health, the simple premise that one person’s choices can impact whether another person gets sick, and that community responses to disease are necessary. The coronavirus truthers, quite simply, dismiss the idea that their choices impact your life. As one social-distancing critic put it in a widely-shared Facebook post: “If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you want to avoid large crowds, avoid large crowds. I am not required to descend into poverty for you. I am not required to abstain from human contact for you. I am not required to shop alone, without my kids, for you.”

That sentiment is not particularly surprising. Many of the people leaping on the COVID-19 skepticism bandwagon are longtime anti-vaccine personalities and advocates for “medical freedom,” two groups so closely aligned that their Venn Diagram looks more like a circle.

“For the usual suspects who show up or assist with the typical 'medical freedom' protests we saw last year, they were often headlined by anti-vax celebrities like Del Bigtree, Andrew Wakefield, or Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” Tara C. Smith told VICE. She’s a professor at Kent State University, as well as an epidemiologist, and an expert on zoonotic infectious diseases. “While 'medical freedom’ may be the rallying cry, the root of their protests are against vaccination.”

Smith also said the emphasis on citizens simply needing to fortify their immune systems is flawed. “First, you can't really 'boost' your immune system in the manner they suggest," she said. "And individuals who do have highly reactive immune systems are generally not in great shape, as this leads to conditions like autoimmune disease.”

This being so, anti-vax and medical freedom campaigners have nonetheless been busy during the pandemic: Among other things, they've issued dark warnings about the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine someday being “mandatory” and promoted highly specious methods of disease protection, most of them centered around that very notion of “boosting” the immune system or other individual—not collective—actions. Del Bigtree, the anti-vaccine activist and TV and film producer, said on March 12 on his program The Highwire that he’s “personally not that worried” about the disease, “mostly because of how I live… There are no pharmaceutical products at all going into my kids. As much as I can help it, there’s no pesticides or herbicides or any of those things going into my children. I turned off all the 5G in my house, just in case.” Due to those measures, his belief that “your body wants to survive,” and our having been created in God’s image, Bigtree said, “I have a sense that anything that happens on this planet, my body will be able to handle it, especially if I keep it healthy.”

Larry Cook, the anti-vaccine campaigner who operates the massive Facebook group Stop Mandatory Vaccination, has been calling for businesses to reopen “IN EVERY STATE WITH ZERO RESTRICTIONS,” as he recently wrote on Facebook, and has been claiming that high-dose vitamin C IVs, zinc, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers treat COVID-19. (Vitamin C IVs are being studied as a potential coronavirus treatment, but the results are still inconclusive. There’s also a small clinical trial underway on the use of hyperbaric oxygen chambers, but that too, is in its earliest possible stages.)

“We don’t need a vaccine,” proclaimed Dr. Judy Mikovits, a controversial former chronic fatigue researcher who now frequently makes anti-vaccine claims, in an April 15 YouTube video with more than 80,000 views. “All you have to do is have a healthy immune system.” (Mikovits has also been involved in the “Fire Fauci” campaign, claiming he sabotaged her research into a purported mouse virus that she says is the true cause of cancer.)

These campaigners frequently reject the idea that there’s anything society can do, collectively, to slow the spread of any disease. In the same video, Mikovits rejected the notion of wearing a mask, since, she claimed, the coronavirus is actually secretly caused by a bad strain of flu shot that was circulating between 2013 and 2015. Masks will help “activate” the virus and reinfect a mask-wearer over and over, she claimed.

“Wearing a mask will kill more people than—this virus is not coughed through the air from healthy people, who are almost certainly immune, as they’ve almost certainly been infected over the last four or five years,” Mikovits said.

Many of the coronavirus truthers, particularly from the anti-vaccine world, scoff at ideas like herd immunity, and generally decry “non-personalized” medical approaches. (In 2019 testimony in Washington state, testifying against a bill that ultimately removed personal and medical exemptions for the MMR vaccine, Bigtree called herd immunity ”a myth,” adding, “It’s an advertising slogan for the pharmaceutical industry to get us to force vaccinate the tiny 2 or 3 percent of unvaccinated children.”) Even their advocacy for “protecting” elderly and critically ill people, seems to amount to encouraging them to stay home while telling everyone else it’s safe to go outside.

Many of these people, like longtime vaccine critic and controversial pediatrician Bob Sears, are focused on Sweden, which has far less strict lockdown measures in place than most countries. Bigtree, too, ran a gauzy segment on Sweden, where friends of the show filmed open shops and unmasked people in Stockholm, an approach Bigtree praised as “very sensible.” (Sweden’s approach has been controversial, and it’s showing a far higher case fatality rate than neighboring countries like Denmark and Norway.)

Some of them, meanwhile, are taking more direct—and bizarre—steps. The anti-vaccine activist and self-proclaimed toxicologist Ashley Everly filmed another woman, fellow anti-vax activist Sarah Brady, being arrested on Tuesday at a park in Idaho after they staged a playground protest over the park closures there. (The protestwas planned in anti-vax Facebook groups.) Footage Everly shared shows children playing on equipment amid torn-down caution tape, before police arrive, ask Brady many times to leave, and ultimately arrest her when she refuses.

“Her kids are here,” someone shouts angrily from off-camera, as though that weren’t precisely the point. “What is gonna happen to her kids?”

In the end, the focus on Vitamin C, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, healthy eating and virtuous living seems to be less of a health decision and more of a political one, inevitably joined as it is by the cries that the economy must reopen and businesses can’t be made to suffer any more than they already have. The ultra-conservative site the Daily Wire, for instance, ran a long piece recently touting the views of a “veteran scholar of epidemiology” named Dr. Knut Wittkowski, who’s argued that social distancing won’t allow society to build herd immunity. “It’s very important to keep the schools open and kids mingling to spread the virus to get herd immunity as fast as possible,” Wittkowski is quoted as saying. “And then the elderly people, who should be separated, and the nursing homes should be closed during that time, can come back and meet their children and grandchildren after about 4 weeks when the virus has been exterminated.” (Rockefeller University, where Wittkowski was previously employed as a biostatistician, released a statement saying that his views “ do not represent the views of The Rockefeller University, its leadership, or its faculty.”)

In the meantime, the clamorous caravan of anti-vaxxers, right-wingers, and all-purpose health opportunists continues on. Anti-lockdown protests are planned in more states, serving as an unholy blend between a rejection of public health and a campaign rally to reelect the president.This government's interests are being served by those who reject the idea of government—which is doubtless why Trump is encouraging protests, and why his allies outside government have been organizing them. Among the consequences are probably that some people will learn firsthand exactly why it doesn't matter whether or not you belief in the concept of public health.

The protests, Smith said, “make me very sad. Odds are good that a number of those who are out protesting will become ill because of their activities, and spread the infection to others in their families and communities. I think they're wrong, but no one wants anyone to die over their beliefs, and I see that coming in the next month for some of these protesters.”

Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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